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5/25/17- Today we had the opportunity to explore the twin cities of Tournon-sur-Rhône and Tain-l’Hermitage in the heart of the Côtes du Rhône, wine-producing region of southern France. Separated by the Rhone River and connected by the 1847 Marc Sequin Suspension Bridge (original 1824), the two cities are easily accessible to one another via this historic pedestrian bridge.
The design of the Marc Sequin Suspension Bridge inspired the design of New York’s Brooklyn Bridge and the construction of many other bridges across Europe.
We were docked on the Tain-l’Hermitage side of the river and began our visit touring there first. Of the two cities, Tain-l’Hermitage has the more modern, industrial town center. Though it doesn’t feel at all touristy, it has received many visitors including Thomas Jefferson.
With a population of just under 6,000, Tain-l’Hermitage has a relaxed, small town feel that is very welcoming. We enjoyed a wine-tasting at the famous Cave A Vins Fromages. We sampled many different local wines from the region.
I’ll say this: I’m really not a fan of the red wines from southern France. Of course, this should mean nothing to a true wine connoisseur. I know next to nothing about what makes a good wine– only what I like. Of the probably (close to) two dozen red wines I sampled during this trip, I might have liked one or two. On the other hand, I enjoyed nearly all the white wines from the region.
Across from the shop, we wandered through a rather large open air market before leisurely walking back towards the Rhone river.
We finished our visit across the bridge in the (older) city of Tournon. With a population of about 11,000, it remains a quiet, pleasant little town; not unlike many others found throughout Europe. We enjoyed a relaxing walk through the streets, especially enjoying the sunshine.
James Barbour In Concert.
JAMES BARBOUR just finished starring on Broadway for nearly three years as The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. He has also starred on Broadway as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (Drama Desk, Drama League, Outer Critics Circle awards nominations), Czolgosz in Assassins, The Beast in Beauty & the Beast, Billy Bigelow in Carousel, Officer Lockstock in Urinetown and Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre (Drama League nomination). James also appeared on Broadway in Cyrano, opposite Jeremy Irons in Camelot and in the national tour of The Secret Garden. Other recent credits: Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (LA Ovation Award, Best Actor), Daryl Van Horne in The Witches of Eastwick (U.S. premiere), Daddy Hogan in Anna Nicole (BAM). TV: “The District,” “Just Shoot Me,” “Flashpoint,” “Sex and the City,” “Ed,” “That’s Life,” “Beauty & the Beast in Concert” (CBS), “Great Performances,” “An American Experience,” “A Tale of Two Cities” (PBS). Film: Alchemy, Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, Waiting for Lefty, Twinkle Toes with Sally Kirkland. Recordings: Broadway in Concert, The Gift, Dracula, Tears from Heaven, The Count of Monte Cristo, Excalibur, his many cast recordings and two solo CDs, A Gift of Christmas and Bring Me Giants. He hosts TV’s “James Barbour Now” on WITNation.com. His production company, Laughing Dog Media, creates and controls original content for VoiceAmerica.tv’s new Internet TV network. JamesBarbour.com
We thoroughly enjoyed James Barbour’s evening of story and song. He has a rich, beautiful voice and masterfully connected his passion to the heart of the audience.
Travel Date: May 25, 2017, Thursday (Day 13)
Playbill Travel’s “Broadway On the Rhone”
We woke up this morning to another beautiful sunrise. This time, docked at Viviers in southern Ardèche, we had the beautiful Viviers Suspension Bridge in full view from our balcony. We’ve had the most wonderful weather in southern France!
We decided ahead of time to join our friends for a morning walking tour of Vivier.
Our small group entered town, enjoying a relaxing walk under the canopy of ancient Plane trees before reaching the town’s center. We then slowly made our way to the upper town, as our guide gave us some history and noted points of interest along the way.
The small commune of Viviers, dates back to the 5th century. Today, it has less than 4,000 residents. It is a medieval town that has largely escaped the ravages of time. Scenes from the 2000 movie, Chocolat (Johnny Depp), were filmed here.
One of the buildings tied to an interesting piece of local history is the Maison des Chevaliers, or the House of the Knights. The age of the actual structure of the building is unknown but the fascade was constructed between 1545 and 1560. Several houses were combined to create what was to become the House of Knights for Noel Albert.
Albert, a rich merchant– had converted to Protestantism, opposed the king– and as a result, was tried and beheaded in 1568. As bailiff of the bishop of Viviers, he was believed to have been skimming money from the taxes he collected as well.
We visited the shop of Jean Luc Allonneau, Atelier 3 Ceramiques where he has been handcrafting functional ceramic pieces since 1981. After a tour of his workshop, he gave us a brief demonstration at the potters’ wheel.
Independent craftsmen like this are finding it more and more difficult to stay open and competitive with the accessibility of mass produced goods– priced much lower but of inferior material and design.
Jean Luc still hand selects his materials and completes each piece entirely on his own. The process for each, takes more than a month to complete with drying, firing and glazing to be done. He produces pots and dinnerware collections in addition to some pieces created from handmade molds.
Viviers is the birthplace of the Society of Lime and Cement Lafarge. Naturally occurring hydraulic limestone is mined here. The lime is burned to create a product that is used in mortar for construction.
I was particularly interested in this because the brick in our own 1889 house– is held together with a lime-mortar that has to be specially mixed for tuck-pointing (repair). It is seldom used today in new construction– now, mostly Portland Cement. The advantages of lime include a slow drying process and a much stronger, resilient, finished product.
On our way back to the ship, we stopped for a photo op with our friends before returning to the ship for a late lunch. We had a few hours before we would walk back into town for a special concert Playbill had arranged for us.
Viviers Cathedral aka St. Vincent Cathedral. Earlier in the day, we didn’t have a chance to go inside the cathedral but we saw the exterior from virtually every angle. I suppose, aside from the fact that we saw the performers entering to rehearse, when we passed in the morning– the main reason was: we’d return for our special concert in the afternoon.
St. Vincent Cathedral, built in the 11th century, is the smallest, if not the oldest, medieval cathedral in France that is still active today.
During the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Protestants in the 16th century, the vaulted ceiling was destroyed. It was not rebuilt until the 18th century.
Concert at Viviers Cathedral. This was a first for Playbill Travel. Not only were we getting a concert in a beautiful venue– they were doing a second concert for the entire town, after ours. So you might say– ours was the dress rehearsal. (Wink.)
The concert truly was special. Having the chance to hear some of the great music of Broadway, resonating through this beautiful cathedral was breathtaking. The performances were great and the setting gave it an added magical touch. James Barbour, Liz Callaway, Rebecca Luker, John McDaniel and Paulo Szot all received a well-deserved standing ovation. A truly memorable event.
We found out later, that after our concert, several of the performers thought they’d get a bite to eat in town between shows. Only one problem– everything had closed down because everyone was going to the concert! The whole town attended, including the mayor. Some said they didn’t know what to expect from the concert. Very quickly they were drawn in, thrilled when they recognized some of famous Broadway tunes. The crowd loved it and it was a huge success.
Bravo, Playbill Travel!
Travel Date: May 24, 2017, Wednesday (Day 12)
Traveling to new places can certainly be a mixed bag of experiences. I learned a long time ago not to let expectations get in the way of the experience itself. Even if you’ve spent a lot of time researching a destination in advance, there are always surprises along the way. Something might be closed. There may be a new exhibit or a festival that suddenly draws your attention. It could be overcrowded or timing may play an important role. Weather may also be an important factor. Whatever the situation when you arrive, flexibility is the key.
During our stop in Avignon, we had six optional excursions to choose from. Four were included- a walking tour of Avignon, a walking/tram tour (for gentle walkers), the Pont du Gard Aqueduct, or kayaking on the Gardon river. Two offerings, for an additional charge, included: A cooking class with a master chef at the Hotel la Mirande, or Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine tasting.
I was interested in seeing the Aqueduct but that meant sacrificing a visit to Avignon and the Palace of the Popes. So it was hard to choose. Michael and I ended up deciding we wanted the adventure of exploring Avignon on our own. I thought to ask our Cruise Manager Tania, if there was an admission ticket to the Palace of the Popes, which there was. She had a few tickets on hand, for those not taking the tour that wanted to explore on their own. Good thing I asked!
One other thing– in each city we docked, Uniworld had maps available to take with us, whether we went with a guided group or not. Taking one today was especially beneficial.
We crossed the main road that runs along the Rhone river and entered the fortified walls of Avignon.
Avignon dates back to at least the 6th century BC under Greek domination. Naples and France each had their own piece of early history here. By the 1300’s, it became the residence of the Popes– seven in all would make Avignon their home before the Papacy returned to Rome as the permanent residence. In addition, multiple plagues had a big impact on the city over the centuries. While the current city population is about 90,000, only about 12,000 live with the ancient city center that is surrounded by looming medieval ramparts.
We walked through narrow streets, into the city, finding ourselves in the Place de l’Horloge. Not only is it considered the city center, it is one of the most perfect squares (I’ve seen so far) in Europe. It was still early in the day when we arrived. The hour was reflected by the activities of the merchants and restaurateurs busily preparing to open up shop. What made it so perfect was the blend of colorful shops, historic buildings and an old world atmosphere that hadn’t been completely modernized or commercialized. It still had so much charm.
Just a few blocks away was the Square Below the Palace of the Popes (Place du Palais). Not quite as charming as Place de l’Horloge but still historically beautiful and well preserved. There we found an artist was setting up to sell his work. Across the square, an accordionist played his squeezebox; busking at the steps of the Palace.
Palace of the Popes. The Palais des Papes is one of the 10 most visited monuments in France. It is the largest Gothic palace in Europe. Built in the 14th century, it was first home to Popes, then Legates, and finally Vice-Legates up until the French Revolution. Six papal conclaves were held here.
The majority of the palace was constructed in less than 20 years.
Over 20 rooms can be explored during your visit. Most of the ornate embellishments that were the finishing touches of later Popes, are now gone. One of the most interesting areas of the palace are the Popes’ private chambers– with original frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti. (No photography allowed.)
The palace was first opened to the public in the early 1900s. Today, exhibitions and performances are held here year-round. It is interesting that the palace has not been turned into a museum house in the way that many historic places have been. Here, the focus is on the magnificence of the building and architecture itself.
From the Palace, we wandered through the streets of Avignon, passing many shops and small theatres on our way to the Rocher des Doms Garden overlook. We strayed from the main path, discovering some unique passages and paused a moment to watch a sculptor at work.
After winding our way around, climbing many steps, we found ourselves at the top of the Rocher des Doms Garden Overlook. The gardens and panoramic views were nothing short of spectacular. It was just incredible up there. I couldn’t help but wonder if our cruise mates were going to miss out on all this beauty, or be rushed through, to stay on schedule. We had all the time in the world.
I think we found the best view of the famous bridge- Pont d’Avignon or Pont Saint-Bénézet. Originally completed in 1185, it crossed the Rhone, only to be destroyed 40 years later by Louis VIII when taking over Avignon. It was rebuilt with 22 arches but river flooding repeatedly damaged the bridge. The surviving sections of the bridge are believed to have been constructed around 1345, with the Chapel of Saint Nicholas at the middle of the four remaining arches. The bridge is considered an important representation of the city, as well as the inspiration for the song, Sur le pont d’Avignon.
We took a break, grabbing a drink from a small cafe on the hill, and continued to enjoy our beautiful surroundings. We had perfect weather. It was hard to leave this place but we needed to start making our way back down the hill.
We reached the bottom of the hill, once again passing the palace and finding ourselves back at Place de l’Horloge. It was a little busier now, the carousel was in motion and tourists were beginning to fill the streets and shops.
We’d only covered about a third of Avignon but felt like the experience had been totally fulfilling. It was still early afternoon and we could have spent more time but I was anxious to get back to the ship.
Lighting Paulo. I ended up volunteering (getting volunteered) to try and help improve the lighting for tonight’s concert. After the daily briefing in the Van Gogh lounge, while everyone else headed to the Cezanne Dining Room for dinner, I stayed and helped the staff transform the lounge into a makeshift theater.
On all the previous Playbill cruises the ships had actual theaters (or performance spaces) with a stage. Being a much small ship, specifically designed for river travel, the S.S. Catherine had only the large Van Gogh Lounge (with no stage) that could accommodate all the guests at one time.
I’m not sure I was able to improve the lighting that much– but at least music director, John McDaniel would be lit. (The night before, he was totally in the dark.) The ship staff seemed grateful for the assistance and asked if I’d hang around for sound check.
A Private Moment. There really wasn’t time to go join our group in the dining room– so I went to our regular spot, which coincidentally was just off the lounge– on the front-lower deck of the ship. I got out there just in time to watch as our ship passed through one of the river locks– the first one I got to observe from start to finish. It’s fascinating how it works, moving from different water levels– and the fact that these locks help prevent most of the flooding that could occur along the river is pretty incredible.
After the lock, we were back in open water. Mostly natural, undeveloped land drifted by– with the occasional building or the remains of some ancient building coming and going from view. The sun was still quite hot as it was slowly starting it’s late afternoon descent from the sky. It was peaceful, quiet, and really a beautiful moment. How lucky I was to be experiencing it!
Paulo Szot In Concert. What a voice! Strong, rich, resonant– a joy to listen to. Paulo treated us to a wide variety of songs that included selections from his Tony Award-winning performance in South Pacific to Sondheim. I think the audience favorite had to be his rendition of Stars from Les Miserables; performed in many different languages and ending in English.
Paulo Szot is one of the most acclaimed and versatile baritones in the world, having garnered international acclaim as both an opera singer and actor. Born in Sao Paulo to Polish immigrants, Szot has appeared in leading roles with many major opera companies throughout the world including the Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, La Scala, Dutch National Opera, San Francisco Opera, Rome Opera and Opera Australia. In 2008, he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Emile De Becque in the Broadway revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater, for which he also won the Drama Desk, Outer Critic’s Circle and Theater World Awards. Szot was the first Brazilian actor to receive such honors. In the recent 2016-2017 season, Szot appeared as Don Alfonso in a new production of Cosi fan tutte at Opera National de Paris and presneted a solo recital at Teatro Royal de Madrid as a salute to Frank Sinatra’s recordings of Antonio Jobim’s bossa novas. He also originated the roles of Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney in the world premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s The New Prince at the Dutch National Opera. — Playbill
Going Through the Locks. After the concert, the gang gathered on the deck and we were treated to quite a show. We went through probably the most unique of the locks on our trip– passing under, and then watching the massive gate drop behind us closing our ship in the lock, creating what felt like a medieval dungeon. It was dark and eerie, the ship’s floodlights reflecting off the dark, glistening walls as the water level changed before releasing us back out into the river.
It had been quite a day! I always tell people that doing the Playbill cruises is like getting two vacations in one. You enjoy traveling to, and exploring, fascinating destinations– and then you have the wonderful Broadway concert experience on board. Today was the perfect example of the best of both worlds.
Travel Date: May 23, 2017, Tuesday (Day 11)
Tarascon. Today was our first full day of the Broadway On the Rhone (BOTR) river cruise. The S.S. Catherine had docked last night at Tarascon, Halte Fluviale (river stop). We had sailed south on the Rhone to get here, while the rest of the cruise will be traveling north, up the river, ending in Lyon.
Today, we had the choice of two excursions: a walking touring of the beautiful town of Tarascon or taking a coach bus to the city of Arles, for a walking tour there. Both excursions were included in the cost of the cruise. Time not allowing us to do both, we chose to visit Arles. (There was a third option scheduled for the afternoon– visiting an olive farm– for an additional fee if you chose to participate.)
Fortunately, we were able to see parts of Tarascon on our way to Arles. The most prominent structure being the Chateau de Roi René. The castle was built in the 1400s and later served as a prison up through the late 1920s.
As with so many small towns, Tarascon appeared to be a lovely place to wander and enjoy the mix of modern and historic preservations. The commune of Tarascon-sur-Rhône has a current population of only 13,500 residents.
Arles. We arrived in Arles, perhaps most famous as the temporary home of Vincent Van Gogh. Just outside the remains of the fortress walls, is the location of where the famous “yellow house” where Van Gogh lived between 1888 and 1890, once stood. Small modern shops now occupy the site.
We proceeded to enter the center of the ancient town of Arles. The commune (city) is the largest (land area) in France! It only has a population of 52,000 but its recognized land covers 293 square miles. The city center is much smaller and quite easy to navigate.
The Roman Arles Amphitheatre, completed around 90 AD, was used for chariot races and hand to hand combat. As many as 20,000 spectators would witness these events at any given time. Today the amphitheatre is used for bullfighting, concerts and other performances.
The area of town around the amphitheatre is built up with tightly nestled homes and businesses dating back many centuries. This was another spot that Van Gogh frequented, people-watching and gathering inspiration.
In very close proximity was the Theatre of Arles. Completed around 12 BC., it is one of the oldest Roman stone theatres. Back in its day, this theatre featured grand presentations of tragedies and comedies featuring actors, unlike the amphiththeatre. It is still used as a concert and performance venue today.
We spent some time at Place de la Republique which features an Obelisk and the town hall, Hotel De Ville. There was a large gathering for a funeral outside the Church of St. Trophime so we were unable to go in it. The Romanesque Catholic church was built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
The Obélisque d’Arles was erected by Roman Emperor Constantine II in the 4th century. It eventually fell and broke into two pieces, was lost for years, rediscovered, and re-erected in 1676 and placed here on a pedestal. Place de la Republique is a beautiful square in the heart of Arles.
Vincent Van Gogh in Arles. At the age of 35, Van Gogh left Paris and spent a good part of 1888 and 1889 in Arles. Here, he further developed his signature style, sketching and painting an astounding 300 pieces of art. Van Gogh was so taken by the city, he had hoped to build an artist colony in Arles. Unfortunately, he suffered from severe depression- leading to repeated hospitalizations and the infamous incident when he cut off his left ear– sending it to a prostitute. Leaving Arles, he committed himself to a hospital in St. Remy and then Auvers-sur-Oise. In May 1890, he shot himself in the chest, dying two days later from his wounds. Ironically, none of his original work remain in Arles but can be viewed in major museums all over the world.
Our next stop was L ‘Espace Van Gogh, formerly, the Hospital at Arles. Van Gogh checked himself in to the hospital’s psychiatric ward, voluntarily in 1889.
While staying at the hospital, Van Gogh painted, Garden of the Hospital in Arles or, La Jardin De La Maison De Sante A Arles (1889).
We soon reached the Van Gogh Café famous for the painting, Café Terrace at Night on the Place du Forum. Of all the spots, this is probably the most recognizable (today) of Van Gogh’s work here in Arles.
The plaza, or square, is probably one of the more charming locations in Arles. Most frequented by tourists, the plaza retains its unique, small town vibe– in spite of the outside attraction. Or in other words, it doesn’t feel touristy.
We were really enjoying the relaxing walk through the winding streets and getting a memorable, yet brief glimpse of Arles.
On our way back to our starting point, we stopped at the ruins of the Baths of Constantine (4th century).
We arrived back at the Rhone river, to see the final Van Gogh inspiration spot we’d visit– that of La Nuit Etoilée Sur Le Rhône (1888), his first Starry Night. He painted another, more famous Starry Night, a year later. The view we had today, especially with the overcast sky, was not exceptional- just historic in art context. It’s interesting to see and wonder how in Van Gogh’s head, his vision translated from life to canvas.
From there, we left to go back to our ship and had a relaxing afternoon until it was time to get ready for dinner.
Prior to dinner, we met in the lounge for our daily briefing of news and the breakdown of following day’s excursion options– all provided by our Cruise Manager, Tania– full of humor and enthusiasm.
Then we headed directly to dinner to save seats. With a party of eight, we had to get to the dining room promptly at 7 pm since most of the seating was for six or less.
At dinner, we enjoyed stellar conversation, many laughs, a great meal and wonderful service from the staff.
Broadway On the Rhone- First Concert: Liz Callaway.
Liz Callaway is a Tony nominee and Emmy Award-winning actress, singer and recording artist. She made her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in Baby, and for five years, won acclaim as Grizabella in Cats. She has also starred in the original casts of Miss Saigon, The Three Musketeers, and The Look of Love.
Once again, Liz gave Playbill travelers a wonderful, heartfelt concert. We enjoyed her performance as much this time, as we did on the Southeast Asia cruise. For me, highlights included Chanson and Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife.
For those that might be wondering– since there are performers that have entertained on multiple cruises–Liz gave a fresh new concert, with the (expected) exception of her signature song from the musical Baby, The Story Goes On. It was a beautiful first concert to start off this Playbill cruise.
Travel Date: May 22, 2017 (Day 10)
Transport to train station: 8 AM. What?!? No! This can’t be! But alas, that was indeed the schedule.
No Sunday in the Park with George…. and Jeff and Michael and Mary.
As I’d posted before our trip, I had hoped we’d be able to spend a little of our Sunday morning on the l’Île de la Grande Jatte– where Georges Seurat spent much time sketching and painting. I guess it was just an art/theatre geek thing. I’d hoped we wouldn’t have been leaving Paris before noon– 10 am at the very earliest. I guess that moment just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe next trip. (You hear that George and Mary?)
The night before, Michael and I somehow managed to pack our large and carry on suitcases inside each other so they would go on the truck ahead of us to the ship. (They told us we could send one bag ahead.) This way we didn’t have to lug a big suitcase on the train.
Everything actually worked out perfectly. We got up, had breakfast, and then it was time to head to the train station. No waiting around, killing time.
We arrived at the Paris station, Gare de Lyon, with plenty of time to look around the beautiful, building before boarding the high speed TGV train to Avignon.
It was hard to believe that after the whirlwind adventure we’d had so far– the ‘main event‘ was still ahead! Broadway On the Rhone! This would be our fourth cruise with Playbill Travel but our first-ever river cruise.
We arrived in the south of France (Avignon) in just under three hours. Even though there wasn’t a lot of unique scenery to speak of, it was a relaxed, comfortable trip.
We were warmly greeted and welcomed aboard the S.S. Catherine by the crew and encouraged to visit the buffet. The rooms wouldn’t be ready for a couple hours so we ate and explored. We saw a number of people had arrived that hadn’t gone to Paris first– so we said our hellos and ended up camping out on the top deck.
It was empty up there– a beautiful sunny day and little hot. We guessed most were choosing to stay inside where it was cooler.
After a bit, we saw people coming up the stairs. It was none other than Grammy and Emmy Award winner, John McDaniel and his niece! We made introductions, had a nice conversation and then they were off to explore around the ship some more.
A crew member came around and told us we could check in and go to our rooms but our bags might not be there until later. When they arrived, we had enough time to unpack and take a short nap before the security/excursion briefing in the lounge.
The ship set sail, unceremoniously, while the meeting was going on. That was followed by cocktails on the upper deck and the introduction of our cruise’s entertainment: Liz Callaway, Paulo Szot, James Barbour, and Rebecca Luker; with music director, John McDaniel.
Our ship, the S.S. Catherine, is a small ship, specifically suited for river cruises. It only accommodates 159 guests and 57 staff in 6 suites and 74 staterooms. It has to be short enough to fit under the many low bridges. We would also be passing through 17 locks on the Rhone river from Avignon to Lyon.
The ship has most of the amenities of a larger ship, just scaled down. There’s one large dining room (most ships have three or more) and a big lounge that can hold everyone at one time. There’s also a smaller bar with a ‘pool’ that would be better described as a large hot tub. The only things missing are a gift shop and casino.
One of the first things I noticed, after the Murano chandelier in the lobby, was the beautiful modern art lining all the hallways. Tasteful and appropriate.
At 7 pm we met our friends for an enjoyable dinner and then retired early. I always feel exhausted on travel days, I’m not sure why. Looking forward to a new adventure on the day ahead!
Travel Date: May 21, 2017 Sunday (Day 9)
If you had only one day to explore one of the world’s most famous cities– how would you approach it? Would you try to see all the important landmarks? Take a tour? Explore on you own?
There’s obviously no real right or wrong way to do it. You just have to go with your gut instincts.
Today was our one full day to discover Paris. Actually, we only had eight hours before a champagne river cruise on the Seine– the kick off for our Playbill Broadway cruise which officially launches tomorrow from Avignon. We had dinner reservations booked immediately following, so we had to make the most of the day.
I had ideas of where I wanted to go– but was determined I wasn’t going to get bogged down (and in a rush) with a packed itinerary. I just wanted to experience Paris and with few strings– let it happen organically.
At breakfast, we FINALLY got to see our friends, George and Mary. They are the easiest couple to travel with– and so much fun!
Michael was feeling a little under the weather, so when Mary and George said they’d accompany me on the first leg of the journey– he chose to stay at the hotel and rest.
So we headed out, uphill, in the direction of four places I’d included on the master list of places I’d like to see.
Montmartre. Montmarte was the trendy neighborhood of days gone by. Writers and artists such as Hemmingway, Piccaso, and Van Gogh once spent their days here. Though considered touristy today, I found the area quite charming and peaceful. Corner parks, tree-lined streets, cafes, street vendors– all culminate in a rather exciting, yet tranquil experience. I wanted to see the iconic windmill of Moulin Rouge, the I Love You Wall, and Sacre Coeur— in addition to just soaking in the atmosphere of Montmartre.
The I Love You Wall is the new Love Locks (more on this later) of Paris. Le mur des je t’aime is where love comes together in every language. Artist Frédéric Baron with the help of Claire Kito (oriental calligrapher) created the 612 tile mural described as “a link, a place of reconciliation, a mirror which reflects an image of love and peace.”
The phrase “I love you” is written 311 times in 250 languages with splashes of red representing parts of a broken heart.
You can visit the wall (free) at Butte Montmartre, Place des Abbesses, in the Square Jehan Rictus, Paris.
Near that square is Eglise Saint John de Montmartre. So many churches in Europe (unlike the U.S.) are open for prayer and visitation, all day, 7 days a week. We couldn’t resist stopping and admiring its architecture.
As we strolled through the streets, I thought we might view the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. We were already too close to it to find an unobstructed view. We came across a steep staircase– and with only a little convincing, George and Mary agreed to make the climb. This led to two more steep climbs that took us directly to the base of Sacre Coeur. There is an incredible overlook here with an expansive park below.
The overlook was the most crowded spot we visited in Montmartre, but that wasn’t a drawback– there was a carnival like atmosphere in the air.
George and Mary had been there before but it had been 30 years ago. Both agreed that it was worth the climb to experience it again. I was just happy to be there with them. Michael would have loved this spot too– but not the climb!
We then began the steep descent, heading back in the direction of our hotel, taking different streets, continuing to explore as we went. It was the perfect way to spent part of a day in Paris.
When we got back to the hotel, I only had time to freshen up, get Michael and then we headed back out in the direction of the River Seine and the Île de la Cité. One of two remaining natural islands within the city of Paris.
We passed the Louvre and reached Île de la Cité and spent some time at Notre Dame de Paris. Featuring French Gothic architecture, it was completed by 1345, survived damage during the French Revolution, and received its first major restoration in 1845.
It’s a beautiful cathedral. Even though there are usually long lines of visitors waiting to get in, they move very quickly. Visiting is free, although there is a charge if you want to climb the narrow stairs to the bell tower. (Which we didn’t do.)
My one regret– in our effort to keep moving, was that I forgot to find Paris Point Zero. It is the marker that supposedly designates the exact center of Paris and France. It is the point from which all distances in France (from Paris) are measured.
From there, we walked along the River Seine until we reached the Square du Vert-Galant and Pont Neuf bridge. The square is a park honoring Henry IV of France. The Pont Neuf bridge is the oldest surviving bridge across the Seine.
You may have heard of Love Locks on the Pont des Arts bridge. The affixing the locks to the bridge was used to symbolize love. In just five years the bridge was covered in locks. Officials feared for the weight and damage they were causing the bridge. They were removed– an estimated million padlocks, in 2015. Well, they are reappearing on other bridges, including Pont Neuf.
Reaching the bridge quicker than we expected, we had some time before the rest of the group would arrive for the Playbill Champagne River Cruise. We walked around the point of the island and enjoyed the views from Pont Neuf– just soaking up the atmosphere.
We met our friends at the boat launch and prepared for a lovely cruise on the river. The private event was organized by Playbill Travel.
Janet and Ken arrived, having been delayed a day by a flight cancellation, and we were all thrilled to be reunited.
After we got off the boat, we had a little time before our dinner reservations to wander Pont Neuf. We also had a birthday surprise for Janet. There was a quaint little vintage jewelry store (Jeanne Danjou et Rousselet) on the island where we had a gift– wrapped and waiting for her. Janet loved the surprise.
We had found the store online (back at home) and picked out a vintage necklace, as a gift from all of us– that they graciously agreed to hold for us to pick up in person. Michael and Mary went in the store with Janet while George, Ken and I watched from outside the shop window. They even resized it for her on the spot.
Our restaurant was just around the corner, on a square where a number of people were playing Boules (Bocce in Italy). We arrived promptly at 7 pm at the charming and historic, Restaurant Paul for dinner. The food and the service was great– a perfect birthday celebration for Janet.
After dinner, we caught the sun setting on the Seine. A stunning combination of color and light playing off the water and bridges as day turned to night.
We got back to the hotel and packed so we’d be ready for our early morning transport to the train to Avignon.
I added at least another 9 miles walking today. A pretty fulfilling experience. My own unique introduction to Paris, the City of Lights.
Travel Date: May 20, 2017 Saturday (Day 8)
Here are some additional photographs from our day in Versailles:
Travel Date: May 19, 2017 (Day 7)
We were really looking forward to visiting Versailles. We got our tickets in advance and had made plans with our friends, Laura and Cass to spend at least half the day there. Most days the gardens of Versailles are free– except when they have the Musical Fountains Show or Musical Gardens as it is called. Today was one of those days.
Our tickets included the Palace, Grand Trianon, Petite Trianon and Marie Antoinette Estate, in addition to the the special garden show. There are a variety of ticketing options, including special tours (only a few are in English) of portions of the Palace that general ticket holders don’t get to see. We did not add any additional tours and I can assure you that there is plenty to overwhelm your senses without them.
The grounds of Versailles covers over two thousand acres of which 213 acres are formal gardens. What you see when you visit, particularly in the Palace itself, is pretty astounding. Especially when you consider it began as a hunting lodge! Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, had an unwavering determination and vision to create what Versailles was to become. He chose the sun as his emblem because of its association to Apollo– and it was the symbol of peace and art.
The Château de Versailles and the gardens were designated as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979.
Putting this post together was a little difficult with so much to cover: which photographs to use, how much history/facts to include, and of course, the experience itself. (I’ll be posting more photos of Versailles in a separate blog post, immediately following this one.)
If you are interested in the history of Versailles and Louis XIV, and I promise you, it is really fascinating — I encourage you to explore the subjects online. I’ll try and keep my inclusions here- brief; and focus more on our experience.
The four of us took a taxi to Versailles, arriving about a half hour before the Palace opened. This gave us plenty of time for pictures of the magnificent exterior. Then, while Michael and Laura waited in line, Cass and I took turns running back to take a few pictures in the gardens (The Orangerie) before it had a chance to get crowded.
The Palace. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the beauty and grandeur of the Palace. Versailles, rightfully, is on most top ten lists of the most beautiful palaces in the world.
The effort made to maintain and restore the Palace is some of the best I’ve seen in our travels. In so many places we’ve visited, you find faux finishing used to repair, restore or represent what had been there originally. I didn’t notice any of that here.
Every room is dripping in its uniquely-styled opulence. Ceiling mural, elaborate moldings, wall and ceiling medallions, gold leaf everywhere– it doesn’t stop. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
The palace is absolutely stunning! I stepped outside to wait for the others to finish in the Battles Gallery and saw the crowds of people lining up to enter. It made me really glad we arrived early.
While waiting, I noticed the military presence outside the Palace. Actually, it was the most visible of our entire trip.
When the others came outside, we decided to head out to the gardens. Cass suggested we establish a time and meeting place in case we split up but the consensus was it wasn’t necessary at this point.
The Gardens. There are more than 50 fountains and water features in Versailles. My biggest disappointment was the fountains aren’t continuously working. Being that is was a Musical Fountains Show or Musical Gardens day, I expected to see more flowing water. We never did see any of the larger, world-renowned fountains working.
We were told different fountains come on briefly, at different times, throughout the day. You either had to wait by a fountain, or hope to pass one that was working. Since they charge more money for this, I would have thought there would be a schedule and/or a map assisting you in enjoying them. This wasn’t the case. There are maps of Versailles but no indication when the individual fountains would be running.
As we wound our way through the garden maze, we heard music ahead. Tucked in a secluded section, we found a modern water show in progress. This was nice, but I would have rather seen the many older fountains working.
The views of the garden are breathtaking. There is something new to see around every turn– statues, alcoves, private garden enclaves– they never end. There are large map boards strategically placed throughout, to help you find your way around.
After some wandering, we made our way to the Grand Canal and the Apollo Fountain.
Walking from the Palace to the Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette Estate covers about two miles- one way. There is a tram (for a fee) that can transport you as well. We didn’t discover the tram until we were halfway through the gardens, along the canal– and decided we’d walk the rest of the way to the Grand Trianon– knowing we’d probably take the tram back to the palace after we’d seen the other features of Versailles.
Grand Trianon. We reached the Grand Trianon, divided in two sections by a peristyle (breezeway). Louis XIV had this built as a retreat. His getaway from the nearby palace.
Getting Lost. Taking my last picture, I exited the final room of the Grand Trianon, to look for Michael who had been ahead of me. Cass and Laura were just a room or two behind us in the chateau. I got outside– no Michael. I went back in, getting stopped by a guard– and was told I had to wait there. I saw Cass and Laura coming though – but no Michael.
We got outside and just waited. Where was he?
WWMD? What would Michael DO?
Not disappear. But he had.
To make a long story short(er)… we waited… worried… went ahead… backtracked– about three hours went by before we found his whereabouts. We wouldn’t see him again until we got back to the hotel.
Going on through the park, we passed several small buildings and more sculpted gardens before reaching the Petit Trianon.
A guide pointed us in the direction of the Marie Antoinette Estate, more like its own little village. He neglected to tell us that the main house was under renovation. It was completely covered up, in fact.
We looked at a few of the small cottages and then decided to backtrack, hoping to find Michael along the way.
When we got back to the Grand Trianon, we discovered the tram stop and decided to take it back to the Palace. Just as we got on, there was a brief downpour– with some hail. Luckily, it had stopped by the time we reached the main entrance. Laura had cell service, so we called the hotel and left messages, hoping to find Michael, or at least to let him know we were on the way back.
Just as we were getting in a taxi, Michael responded. He had just gotten back to the hotel. (It turns out he had been waiting by an exit at the Grand Trianon that we didn’t even know existed. Then he went on his own adventure, searching for us as we were searching for him.) He was safe, we were safe. A sigh of relief.
On the way back to the hotel, we had some terrific views of the Eiffel Tower. If we’d been any closer, it would have been hard to get all of it in a picture.
Back at the hotel, Laura and Cass went up to their room and Michael came down and met me out front. We recounted our search efforts, vowed to never let that happen again– and then Michael informed me that the day’s drama wasn’t over yet.
Our friend Janet had emailed Michael to let us know that her flight from the U.S. had been cancelled. She and her son, Ken wouldn’t be arriving until the next day. We’d already prepaid for dinner and a show so we had to find someone to take their place.
We found our friends, Marilyn and Rita, who had experienced their own misadventure that day– and were thrilled to join us.
Paradis Latin. All of us met in the lobby (including Laura and Cass) and then got a car to Paradis Latin. Like Moulin Rouge, this was one of several venues catering primarily to tourists. We all had a really nice time. Dinner was very good and the show was pretty much what we expected. Topless showgirls and shirtless men, a comedian, an aerialist– song and dance — including the Can-Can. An enjoyable evening, though by our standards, a bit overpriced.
We’d had quite a day and walked over ten miles! In spite of the drama, it had been a pretty fulfilling adventure.
AND— we had another great travel story to tell. Let’s just hope it’s the last one of its kind.
Travel Date: May 19, 2017 (Day 7)
Our five days in London had flown by. Still feeling the exhilaration from yesterday’s incredible adventure– we got up, packed, and prepared for the next leg of our journey. We had coffee outside the lobby of St. Pancras, as had become our morning routine, enjoying the bright morning sun and going over our schedule.
After breakfast, I walked the grand staircase, one last time– just relishing the beauty of it. I love St. Pancras. It’s hard to fathom that it barely escaped demolition and is now fully restored.
As guests in the historic part of the hotel, we were entitled to VIP service for the Eurostar to Paris at the adjoining St. Pancras International Railway Station. We were met in the lobby and escorted to the station, through customs/immigration– all the way to boarding and stowing our luggage on the train. It couldn’t have been easier.
Traveling Europe by high speed train is a fast, convenient and inexpensive alternative to air travel. From London to Paris took us two hours and twenty-two minutes. From St. Pancras International, the Eurostar took us through the Channel Tunnel and across the French countryside before arriving at Paris Gare du Nord. The distance is nearly 3oo miles. (By car the trip takes over six hours.)
I’d like to give you a highly romanticized version — riding the rails. Truthfully, from the scenery outside my window, it could have been a train ride anywhere in the world.
The one thing I did notice was for a good portion of the trip, we’d pass a church steeple seeming to stick up out of the fields every few miles. I saw dozens of these and they all looked similar.
Don’t get me wrong– some of the scenery was beautiful– it’s just not unique. I say this for anyone considering the train option purely in hopes of seeing a different world of small villages, farms and sights unique to France.
None of that really mattered to us though– because we were on our way to a new city. We’d be experiencing Paris for the first time.
We arrived at Paris Gare du Nord and found our driver waiting for us at the end of the track. He escorted us out of the station and drove us to our hotel. Our stay at Hotel Scribe had been arranged through Judy Perl Worldwide Travel that handles the bookings for Playbill Travel. We arrived a day earlier than many of the people going on the Broadway on the Rhone cruise, who were also doing the pre-cruise stay in Paris.
After checking with the desk, we had a little time before our room would be ready, so we went for a walk through the neighborhood– part of the 9th arrondissement. Just down the block from our hotel was the Palais Garnier. It’s consider one of, if not the most famous opera house in the world.
The Palais Garnier is the setting and inspiration for Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, adapted into many movies and of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular stage musical.
After a pleasant walk, we returned to the hotel and got settled in. We checked the weather and were trying to decide if we should chance the threat of rain. A storm was rolling in and decided not to risk it.
We heard from our friends, Laura and Cass and met them down in the lobby. After a little catching up, we decided to go to dinner at a cafe/brasserie recommended by the front desk. They got us a reservation and we headed there, just across the street. It was pouring rain!
The restaurant was packed. Capucine Cafe is a lovely little place with great food and plenty of atmosphere. We were seated by the window on the second floor–with a nice view, as the rain continued to flood the street below.
We had a great time catching up, with our conversation bouncing from topic to topic. Then before heading back to the hotel, we planned our big day ahead. Tomorrow the four of us were heading to Versailles.
Little did we know– it would be a much bigger adventure than we were expecting!
Travel Date: May 18, 2017 (Day Six)
Our last full day in London was to be a very wet one, start to finish. We’d actually been pretty lucky with the weather– mostly sunny days and temperatures slightly above the norm for this time of year. There was no way we were going to let a little rain dampen our spirits. We grabbed an umbrella and headed out for another busy day.
The Monument to the Great Fire of London is the world’s tallest isolated stone column. It is most commonly referred to as The Monument. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it stands to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666. It’s hard to get a perspective of its size in a picture– so consider that there are 311 steps that go up to a viewing platform at the top.
One of the interesting things we found online before our trip was the Sky Garden in the Walkie Talkie building, 20 Fenchurch Street.
The building itself, nicknamed for its unusual shape, is considered by many as “the worst building” in the U.K. Completed in 2014, it has 34 floors, the top three made up of the Sky Garden, bars and restaurants.
The Sky Garden is London’s highest public garden and it offers an uninterrupted, 360 degree view of London. It’s free to visit but tickets are required. It’s highly recommended you reserve them in advance because it is frequently filled.
In spite of the cloudy skies and rain-spattered windows, the views were spectacular. There is an open air observation deck on one side, with rest of the views through large panes of glass.
It started raining again so we took the Tube as close as we could, to our matinee performance of Les Miserables. Why Les Miz? Yes, we’ve seen many professional productions– in NYC and on tour. Maybe even a dozen. BUT we’d never seen it in London– where it all began. AND it’s Michael’s favorite musical.
Les Miserables has been running continuously in London for nearly 32 years! One fact you may not know, is that the events in the show, occur around the June Rebellion (or The Paris Uprising of 1832) NOT the French Revolution (1789-1799) as many people believe.
At intermission, we both commented that we thought is was way to fast! Now, when Michael agrees that something is too fast– it’s too fast. When we see shows, he’s always saying they could pick up the tempo. Sure, a performance differs from one to the next– but this, apparently, wasn’t a fluke. A friend who saw it two years ago asked if they were still speeding though it.
I found the differences in staging from the original Broadway production interesting. (I’m assuming this is still the original staging.) Some things worked better than others and I could also see why some were changed. All in all, in spite of the pace, we still enjoyed it.
It was pouring rain after the show. We headed over to the Savoy Theatre and picked up our tickets, hoping to find a place for dinner nearby. While we were there, we went in the Savoy (Hotel) to check out the lobby.
We found a place across the street for dinner– appropriately called Eat. We did.
And, yes, still raining.
Our last show this visit– and another one of the reasons we came to London: the musical Dreamgirls.
A little backstory is necessary. We saw Amber Riley (Glee) was starring in the London production and really wanted to see it. I went to order tickets, front and center, and I had the option of getting the same seats with something called ‘blue box’ for the same price. This said it included a drink and snack. Okay… same price… why not? The tickets were about 80 pounds or $102 USD. At New York ticket prices, it would have been a minimum of $149– probably over $200 because these would be considered ‘premium seats’ — without a ‘blue box’.
I purchase the tickets. Done. Then get a message (after they were paid for, no refunds) that Amber Riley doesn’t perform all the Wednesday night shows! Not happy. Then the show opened in London, won a number of Oliver Awards, including Best Actress (Riley) — so we just kept our fingers crossed. Maybe we’d get lucky.
We get back to the theatre for the show… soaking wet from the rain and they held us at the door. No, clue what was going on. Then the usher tells us we’ve been upgraded to ‘red box’. Huh? We waited until they escorted us to a private lounge where we were given drinks and snacks until we would be escorted to our seats just before the lights went down.
At the busiest point, there were only eleven people in the lounge and we had two servers. They also held our wet things in a private coat check until after the show.
So why the VIP treatment? No clue! We just kept our fingers crossed that the good luck would continue and Amber Riley would walk out on that stage. Our hostess told us they’d meet us at the interval and bring us back to the Ambassador Lounge for drinks– this was just way too cool.
We took our seats– and I think we both held our breath until Effie walked out on that stage. Exhale. Amber Riley was performing!
All I can say is WOW! Everything about the show was perfect. It was beautiful to look at, full of power and emotion– and every single cast member was amazing. Problems we’ve seen in past productions with pace and flow were nonexistent. Riley stopped the show with And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going and Listen (added to this production from the movie) with her costar during the later.
It was magic.
This Dreamgirls will definitely never leave me.
Sometimes the stars align and everything is right.
Tonight was simply beyond wonderful.
Travel Date: May 17, 2017 (Day Five) Wednesday